Daft Punk didn't always present as robots. They weren't even the first robots in music for that matter (see the pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk or the '70s rock band Space). Yet, upon confirmation that the duo has parted ways after 28 years together, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter leave behind one of the most tightly controlled and iconic aesthetic codes in modern music. The band's visual legacy can not only be found in the work of so many dance music producers that came after them, but also in the worlds of fashion, film, and general pop culture as well. Somewhat ironically, considering the band only adopted the robot helmets as a way to avoid having to promote an image in the first place.
So how did two guys who met at secondary school in Paris become the most iconic musical robots in the world? Take a look back at the band's visual evolution.
Just Two Semi-Anonymous French Guys in Random Masks
The story goes that Homem-Christo and Bangalter met in secondary school and briefly played together in a rock band called Darlin'. An early critical review called the band's sound "dafty punk thrash," which would, of course, supply the name of their next project. The two got interested in dance music, gave a demo to a guy with a label they had met at a rave at EuroDisney, and suddenly found themselves a fully-fledged French House project. If this seems like this all happened rather fast and haphazardly, its because it did, and the band, at first, didn't give much thought to their image aside from wishing they didn't have to. So, in early press photos, the duo's faces are either behind random masks or slightly obscured or blurred in some way.
"We don't want to run into people who are the same age as us, shaking our hand and saying, 'Can I have your autograph?' because we think we're exactly like them," Bangalter told MixMag back in 1997. "Even girls, they can fall in love with your music, but not with you. You don't always have to compromise yourself to be successful. The playing with masks is just to make it funnier. Pictures can be boring. We don't want all the rock'n'roll poses and attitudes—they are completely stupid and ridiculous today."
The band appeared on the cover not as robots, but rather in masks appropriated from Japanese folklore.
Charles, The Dog Guy
In fact, the first mask the wider public probably associated with Daft Punk was not robotic, but rather that of a creepy bloodhound who seemed like McGruff the Crime Dog's hapless cousin.
At the time, it wasn't uncommon for dance music producers to hand over music video duties to hotshot young directors to do with what they pleased. Spike Jonez was still a few years away from making movies when he linked up with Daft Punk in 1995, but he had already affirmed himself as a talent to watch in the music video arena. For "Da Funk," Daft Punk's first commercial single, Jonez did away with music video conventions and merely used the song as the background track for a short film about an awkward dog man named Charles who had just moved to New York City. The clip was a staple of MTV's late-night music video blocks for years, and Daft Punk eventually produced a sequel of their own which imagined Charles as a successful actor in Los Angeles. Despite several attempts to intellectualize the video, the band has always mandated that it just wasn't that deep. He's just a weird dog man who happens to like music and a girl named Beatrice.
Around The World Sets a Tone
For the follow-up single from their debut album Homework, the band entrusted their music video to fellow Frenchmen Michel Gondry, then best known for his work with Björk. The band nor their mechanical alter-egos appear, but the clip starts to set the tone for the aesthetic we'd come to know.
The Robots Rise With Discovery But Take a Back Seat to Anime At First
While doing promotion for their second album Discovery, Daft Punk began appearing in the earliest form of their signature robot masks and claimed an accident in their studio had rendered them as machines. Even despite this new layer of uniform anonymity, the band still shies away from fully inserting themselves in their visuals. Instead, they enlisted Kazuhisa Takenouchi to direct Interstella 5555, an anime film that served as the album's visual companion. No separate music videos for the album were ever made.
Robots After All
It would take until the 2005 album Human After All for the band to fully embrace their robotic visages as an actual image instead of an excuse not to have one. The music video for the lead single "Robot Rock" was the first time the band actually appeared as the leads in their own music video, albeit in character. While Human is not the favorite album of almost any Daft Punk fan, the collection and the corresponding Alive tour cemented the band's visual image, ten years after their first single.
A Fully Formed Mythos
By the time the band posed in an advertisement for Hedi Slimane's iteration of Saint Laurent in 2013, it was clear the band was more comfortable than ever with their image. Despite an early aversion to "rock star posing," they had found a way to do it on their terms. The Random Access Memories era saw the robots moving through the world more than ever before: in ads, on fashion magazine covers, performing with The Weeknd, walking red carpets, standing on stage next to Beyoncé at the Tidel launch event, and even accepting the Grammy for Album of the Year. Of course, we could find out years from now that it wasn't always the band themselves behind those masks at all times, but that was always part of the point.